If human civilisation has indeed gone on for more than 10 thousand years, instead of scraping two, mankind must surely have found some way to build utopia and stop every sorrow in the universe. But hell, this is real life. We haven’t even got rid of smoking.
And that is what McCormack was doing, as he pushed his way out of the fire exit of the St Michael Airport Hotel. He greeted the cleaning ladies on the way out- hell, they needed some courtesy. The hotel was going to use androids for maintenance soon enough. Even non-union vassals weren’t efficient enough with the rent these days.
A nicotine quota flashed up in his visual field and McCormack waved it away irritatedly. Slung on his shoulder was a tripod in a canvas bag. As far as everyone was concerned, he was just a grizzled streamer for Gencon. The latter depreciating rapidly as a profession as direct streams from eyeballs to the net via brainware were gaining market acceptance as more Corp citizens went online brain-to-web.
At worst, an observer would take him for Allan Robinson, a post-cryo rehabilitated war-vet, struggling to adapt. Under that guise, he was Carlos Velligas, a terrorist on the INTERPOL top ten most wanted list... and under that cover was who he really was: A spook, no dental, prints, retinal scans on any biometric database – a lethal covert ops agent working for the greater good of all mankind on Gaia. An economic hitman.
McCormack can still remember when the ships came, a good three decades ago. His handlers let him keep that memory. There he was, 20-something, clean shaven and his bolt action gripped too tightly in his shaking hands. The cacophony of shells exploding abated just enough to become a chilling drone. A titanic metal vessel was suspended in the sky like a shiny cruiseliner out of water. He remembered raising his scope to his face, his barrel trained on something to kill, but the metal hull of the spacecraft was seamless. And out of the sky boomed a masculine voice:
“The war is over. Return to your homes.”
That message would repeat itself over and over for the next week.
And then, it started to rain boxes. Boxes attached to tiny parachutes.
“Bombs! Goddammit, they are bombing us!”
McCormack remembered shooting a few of those boxes out of the sky, the satisfying pressure on his shoulder as the recoil followed ejection of one empty 7.62mm casing after and another- his right arm like a piston, cocking the charging handle and pulling the trigger in sequence. But the boxes kept coming, floating down slowly like a rain of umbrellas. None of them exploded so far, but he was not going to wait for that to happen.
“Git out! Run!”
He forgot whose voice that was, but remembered then ducking like an idiot, scrambling out of the deathtrap of his foxhole alongside platoon 7. Their faces and very names a vague blur in his recollection. When the boxes finally reached chest-height, McCormack dived prone, scraping his already callused elbows as he landed in an artillery brace position, boots together, hands covering the back of his neck, his eyes pinched shut. Death did not come. His breathing filled his universe.
The stench of sweat under his collar, the abrasions lining his groin, chest and joints reminding himself of just how much mortality sucked. All those weeks outliving braver men and smelling his own piss in a trench and now this.
Nothing. No flash of heat. No bacon-like smell of cooking flesh, no ‘boom’.
McCormack remembered opening his eyes. A box landed not three inches from his face, its tiny parachute collapsing like a punctured soufflé. The surface of the box lit up, like a tiny television. A circle consisting of three ribbon-like loops joined together rotated rapidly and then stretched into a single white horizontal line.
“Hello” said the box.
Its feminine syllables causing the line to exude wave-like points from its center.
“H-hello? Are you talking to me?” McCormack managed, after almost an eternity of staring. “Who are you?”
“I am Genecia, a global operating system.” The line seemed to fall backward into the screen, and the motion revealed it was just part of a mesh of other lines. The mesh grew finer and finer asMcCormack’s eyes were rapt, unable to comprehend what he saw. The mesh became so dense, that it merged into a solid pane which became the colour of flesh. The pane itself zoomed out to reveal a disembodied female face. A familiar one. It smiled.
The rest of the memory was less defined. And this part haunted him for years: He remembered dialing that one number. A number that was just within reach of recollection even today, like a familiar habit, but always gone before it could crystallize in his mind. During this segment, McCormack was making his first mobile phone call to his loved one, a female, whose identity was redacted from his memory. He remembered tears streaming down his face. He knew then and he knew now, that the phone call was a major turning point in his life- that that special woman, whoever she was, knew then that he was still alive. Other peripheral memories were more distinct: He remembered his comrades dropping their weapons in shock as audio-calls converted into video calls and then subsequently into holographic projections.
Genecia was teaching them how to use technology centuries ahead of what they were accustomed to, one baby step at a time. The rest of the ‘awakening’, as everyone called this major event, didn’t feel personal enough. To McCormack, the memory simply served as a marker in his prolonged life. For him the war never stopped. It just got really really quiet.
“Are you done reminiscing?” A female voice in his head chimed. God, he hated it when she used audio. “Your window is opening up.”
To McCormack, GENECIA was just a nanny the machines left behind to make sure mankind didn't kill itself... too much. And embedded directly into his brain alongside an ”obedience explosive" was her psychotic little sister DARCY. Apparently only heads of state and precious few had their own instanced, local version of Genecia; A submind with her own holier-than-thou personality. McCormack didn’t feel very special at all, afterall, it felt like the closest thing to being married.
What do we got? McCormack could never fully freeze his lips he spoke internally, so puffing on a cigarette masked the unconscious facial micro-muscle movements. It wasn’t enough to blow his cover, but anyone who knew where to look or hard enough would make him if wasn’t cautious.
Elevation and velocity data of the target accompanied by a 20-second digital countdown clock with three decimals superimposed itself on the upper edge of his vision. A full anatomy of his target, a 7000 Airbus aircraft overlayed with too much information floated up. He blinked twice and dismissed the clutter, he was one of the last members of a generation that lived without the internet. And he didn’t need it to interfere with what he did best in nearly half a century of active service.
McCormack was just about finished with his cigarette and put it out on the sole of his boot. Bloody waste of a menthol, given that it was a habit that could no longer kill him. Smoking was nostalgic, but pointless if it wasn’t part of his Carlos cover. Even now, McCormack’s nanoblood was probably at work with scrubbers in his lungs, complete with toxin filtration and probably turning his farts into perfume for all he cared. He pulled the tripod out of his bag, extended the legs and mounted his almost vintage looking camera onto it and aimed the lens at a space of sky just above the airport runway.
Flicking the cigarette away, he raised his face to the camera’s viewfinder, another pointless exercise, given that his Bionic vision had a built-in 20x optical zoom anyway. But it was all a flawless execution of persona emulation. Carlos was not as heavily augmented as the covert agent he is, and McCormack has to stay in character.
Right on schedule and dead in McCormack’s sights was Flight DA 195 on its final descent to St Michael international. Seated in seat 16D in the business class cabin was one Cal Brodo. A CPA rigged with 20 AI modules, all so he can launder money for the largest criminal syndicate the world has never seen. Mr Brodo was publicly a philanthropist, but they called him the Auditor in darker circles. Very soon there would be enough of him to go around to every man woman and child under the statosphere. His beneficiaries could probably inhale him soon and be none the wiser.
20 kilometers away from McCormack, at the top of an observatory, an anonymous bomb threat had evacuated all but one person. A fellow agent that McCormack will never know and never meet had an artillery-grade Railgun set up. The huge 6 meter weapon was pointing directly at DA 195’s flight path.
McCormack steadied himself, inhaled as the 20 second countdown hit zero and pressed. With a deliberate click of the shutter button, the innocuous SLR projected a laser that painted the plane for target lock. And instantly, a beam of distortion shot across the sky, undoubtedly from the observatory Rail gun. The blast shredded a glowing hole through the plane and went on to carve rings through the clouds beyond. A split second later a deafening roar flooded the sky and shattered windows like confetti. The flaming wreckage of DA 195 rained lethal meteoric shards onto St Michael international, impaling other planes and perforating towers . But the bulk of the 600 ton plane ploughed into the main terminal, dragging fire and chaos in its wake. In less than 8 seconds, McCormack committed an act of peacetime terror on such a scale that made most war criminals look mild.
Did that work? McCormack thought the words.
Darcy didn't answer rhetorical questions.
A data stream fed into his visual field. Collateral damage was in the billions of credits. Civillian death toll from the craft and airport terminal numbered 1396. This was punctuated by an ominous, cold statement in bold text: “Losses acceptable.”
Sad, sanctioned deaths in a publically unsanctioned op.
A headshot of Brodo popped up in a status feed that folded in from McCormack’s left visual field, along with large bold text: “Primary Target Annihilated.” Followed by “Visual confirmation by two active agents.” And then, just to emphasize how useless human agents are: “Corroborated by DARCY167.”
Death by railgun was not something anyone can come back from. Not even for an Incarnate with the tightly controlled regeneration mutation, which Brodo could not possess as a CORP citizen; but CONTROL could not take any chances. Brodo was now survived by a son and spouse on the other side of the world. Both heirs to his misbegotten fortune and probably very angry and paranoid. Two loose ends for another agent. Not his problem. He had bigger fish to fry.
Just like fishing for a great Merlin, one has to throw a big fish for bait.
Assassination by Railgun is a massive overkill, like swatting a fly with a bomb. Brodo occupied a very crucial role in a shadow organisation that was so large it could have been listed on the GSX main board. Velligas making a messy, public execution was bound to finally gain the Leviathan's attention. Codename 'Leviathan' was the moniker they gave the head of the shadow empire. No one knew who was running the show. A rogue AI? A former high level spook-like McCormack? A spiritual outsider from God-knows-where the Gnost dreamers brought into our reality because of some dumb spell.
McCormack was going to find out soon enough. From DARCY’s calculations the most probable role Velligas had in the criminal empire was a local wetwork specialist. The real Velligas was frozen in a pod buried deep in a CONTROL black site, awaiting an inevitable mind erasure. A horrendous psyche audit dug out all the actionable Intel for McCormack to assume his identity, use his network and execute the attack.
Hopefully these six months of preparation was not for naught: prior to his capture, Velligas wanted to move up the food chain and Brodo was in his way. That's the way this ruse has to play out.
Under normal operational circumstances, McCormack wouldn’t stand around to watch his handiwork having seen too many explosions in a lifetime. However, he, as Velligas, needed to be seen on-site for the next phase of the operation to work. He lit up another cigarette as an excited chittering could be heard off to his right. Right on cue.
One of the chambermaids had walked up to him and his tripod. "OH MY GOD. Did you see that IRL? You can totally sell that visual. Do you have it logged?" She pointed to his SLR and gesticulated wildly. "You got it on that?! We're gonna be rich. I'll sell it to the wire and I'll split you. Ok mister?" Opportunity beckons. McCormack smirked with Velligas' wry smile.
"Ok?" The maid’s dark skin and nearly gravity defying curls came together appealingly with her expression of wanton capitalist desperation. Her name tag read: "Jennifer." She was plainly oblivious that hundreds of people were probably burning just outside of smelling range.
He gave her a long hard glance so that local law enforcement sweeping visual feeds will be able to ID him when their facial recognition algorithms finally worked. He gazed up into the sky, not to appear suave, but to allow any aerial drones to get a good look at him too. A lot of people were looking and they needed something to find. He needed the one right person to know Velligas was there, and Velligas did it.
"Sure Jennifer. I'll give you the footage." McCormack said coolly. "But I don't want any payment...."
Jennifer was befuddled. No one is altruistic, not since everyone got incorporated.
DARCY immediately detected his rising testorone levels. Agent McCormack. We have to move quickly.
".... I want a ride." He finished.
Moments later, Carlos Velligas had the chambermaids skirt up and against the hotel wall. He was indeed moving very quickly.
You will jeopardise the mission if you are caught. DARCY screamed in his head. Need i force you to comply? You have a eighteen second window.
18 was plenty. DARCY knew better than to abuse the trust of possibly their greatest field agent. McCormack transferred the entire POV footage to Jennifer as he pulled up his pants, turned off his brain's network connections and left the scene. Time to go dark.
Poor girl was probably going in for a psyche audit.
McCormack was beginning to enjoy the idyllic days he spent diving into the reef.
His enhancements allowed him a true slice of an aquatic life - handling greater pressures and longer oxygen deprivation than any natural human could. Each morning he stepped into the ocean, the rush of cold water drowning out the distractions of the coastal town nearby.
The world beneath was silent. Simple, by comparison. Though he had lived a hundred lives through various cover identities, the sea was still something primordial and mysterious to him.
McCormack always marveled at the beauty of the underwater world. Sunrays pierced incandescent columns, spilling into the blue eternity. Juts of rock and corals made dark, foreboding shapes when he looked upwards. Gargoyles that permitted the passage of one lone, harmless human - but kept the masses out.
The enhancements bestowed by his nanoblood made diving such a pleasure, he found himself grateful that these enhancements were not given to more people. The demand would have been high - and the sanctuary would have been ruined.
His eyes did not itch from the seawater. His skin cauterized immediately when cut by stray corals as he swam through dense growth. He could descend to a depth of 30 meters without having to manually equalize the pressure in his ears. A single breathful of air could last him an hour, as if he had a rebreather built into his lungs.
Sometimes he would go far enough that schools of fish would circle around him, not knowing enough to be afraid of human presence. He welcomed the company of these innocents who regarded him with nothing more or less than curiosity.
Darcy, too, was remarkably silent. His diagnostics showed no error in his brainware, so McCormack didn’t bother to check if she was still there.
Downtime was the closest thing he got to vacation. The longer the silences last, the better.
Someday GENECIA would groom a better agent to replace him and let him McCormack lie low permanently. Perhaps he could even retire completely from CONTROL and live by the sea. A few hours of pondering and frolicking each day and McCormack would return to shore with two bucketful of mussels - rare, rich real seafood.
He had to establish a routine to avoid suspicion from the locals. Each day he would throw the shellfish into a bucket of freshwater and pour vinegar into it. Inhaling the acrid burn, the mussels would cough up the muck and debris they had absorbed, emitting tiny black clouds.
He would then brush them off and throw them in box, fresh and ready to cook. Each evening, he would walk up to the beachside bars and sell the tasty molluscs to the kitchen staff. Sometimes he would go up to the busier beaches.
First, he’d pay his dues to the local mob and walk with a tray filled with mussels, sriracha and limes at 3 credits a pop. If anyone asked, he was simply a struggling former captain whose ship was downed by an old mine. He was trying to start up again.
Year 60AA, 26 February, 0800 hrs.
An anonymous darknet contact left a message in Velliga’s SafeChats account with details for a dead drop in the Saigon countryside.
About time, McCormack said to no one and stuffed his menthol stub into a coffee cup full of bent filters. He took his feet off the table. In truth, he was not happy for the work. But like all good things, too much downtime made him uneasy. There was always a catch.
Ready to do your job? An all too familiar voice in his head.
Fuck you very much Darcy.
Watch your language.
He had the ugliest cargo shorts on, courtesy of Carlos Velligas. The Velligas identity itself felt annoying - good for fitting in as a tourist too inept and insensitive to possibly be a threat. But McCormack could swear his skin itched the entire time he was wearing Velligas’ name.
McCormack folded the sheet of flexiglass smartpaper he was reading and shoved it into his back pocket. Without a secure brain-to-web connection, this was the best way he could stay abreast of what was happening in the world.
The convenience of smartmaps over his AR was denied to him; local law enforcement would be all over him like flies to shit. McCormack was secretly enjoying having to do this old-school, these little barriers between himself and the Powers That Be.
It was space. Breathing room.
The real Velligas had been an arms dealer and organized crime ringleader. He had been seized by CONTROL as part of an anti-crime bid, and his assets were now being used to infiltrate his criminal network and bring it down from within.
The fall had to be slow and methodical enough that it would not create a power vacuum, nor enough suspicion to raise the hackles of the other syndicates. That meant that for now, McCormack was Velligas. Anyone who came looking for the boss would find him, not dead, but merely a changed man.
Somewhere, the real Velligas was in cryogenic deep-freeze in case he should become useful again. In the meantime, his knowledge and resources were the sort of boon to McCormack that deep-cover agents fantasize about.
Conveniently, Velligas had a safehouse 200 kilometers out of Duy Nguyen City. Countless hours of scrubbing the real Velligas' memory revealed the safe house was known only to Carlos himself - single-person knowledge, a level of security almost nonexistent within criminal organizations.
The real Velligas himself had no memory of how he learned the Safehouse existed. Darcy had concluded that an extremely sophisticated, nigh-untraceable memory recoding was the cause. Very expensive stuff.
Like the treasures that the safehouse’s safe contained.
The safe opens to McCormack’s touch. He only reaches for it when he knows that trouble’s brewing.
The bullets were the best kinds of ammo: Armor-piercing rounds. Rapier rounds that continued to drill into flesh long after the point of impact, making them perfect anti-Incarnate weapons. Thermobaric rounds whose deceptively small packages hid explosive capacity.
But the crown jewel was a gun.
The handgun had begun life as a Creedence & Weber MK-6 Longhorn - and then been customized with a grip that fit McCormack’s hand like a glove, long-distance laser sights, and a universal caliber system that meant it could fire anything Velligas could dream up.
This would have been expensive. Velligas must have skimmed them off the tops of shipments that passed through his hands, arming himself - uselessly, it turned out - against the day someone came after him.
Per the post-war gun laws, the weapon was customized to work only for Velligas, lest it fall into the wrong hands. Every time McCormack touched the weapon, he grinned a little at the thought that anyone thought of Velligas as ‘the right hands.’
But he is thankful for this oversight. He could fire it was well as Velligas can - his employer had gone so far as to replicate Velligas’ nanoblood flowing in McCormack’s veins. It was that sort of attention to detail that made CONTROL agents so terrifying.
CONTROL, McCormack reflected, was truly not a bad employer.
Still, whoever built this place could have left more beer in the fridge. McCormack took the final swig of the final can of imported Siow Lager, crushed it, and was out the door.
Following the message's instructions meticulously and keeping his head low, McCormack zero-ed in on a rural diner 10 clicks away and ordered a local beer, "555" which came with a rotund glassful of cylindrical, chunky ice.
While McCormack understood the local custom for keeping beer cold, his emulation of Velligas had to prevail and pushed aside the glass with the back of his hand. Drinking out of the bottle with one hand, McCormack surreptitiously bent to his side and fished out a paper bag duct taped under the bar bench.
In it was a brown cloth cap embroidered in Viet. His polyglot app translated it in real-time: "Hoang Nguyen tours. established 20AA" The cap was the kind group tours made tourists wear so that their guides could identify them.
McCormack regards tour groups as an archaic and embarrassing endeavour really: being herded by some profit-focused idiot with a flag for the purpose of trespassing into other people’s lives. And in the age of smartthings! A true scholar or explorer could have learned more in half an hour of wandering with visual identification on than in days spent being herded around by entertainers.
But not everyone had the privilege of being on the right side of the war when the Awakening came. He was in Incarnate country. And the risk of that, he supposed, counted for something.
McCormack put the cap on, bill backwards. It was just a piece of cloth: no bugs, trackers, chips... Nothing.
You look stupid. Darcy said. Put it on properly.
It was McCormack’s turn to be quiet. He was so glad they took turns.
The inside of the diner was lined with two rows of green nylon mesh hammocks swaying in the breeze from the open windows. Tiny stools next to them served as bedside tables. A weary old man occupied the nearest hammock to the bar. He had a straw conical hat over his face to keep out the sun, one leg in his hammock and the other, shoeless and smelly, dangling overboard. The very image of relaxation.
McCormack’s experience taught him to observe the man via reflections in the bottles rather than turn his head.
Was this his contact? Unlikely.
McCormack’s boosted hearing took in the pattern of breathing and heart rate. Darcy ran a quick analysis: REM sleep, most likely for the last hour. Not our guy, unless he’s asleep on the job.
A gaggle of Hanese tourists burst into the diner noisily, startling the sleeping man mid-snore. All of them wearing the same brown tour cap. A scheduled group tour. Velligas’ cue, perhaps.
McCormack wandered out the door to the bus whence they came and glanced around. Civilians.
Most were pure humans or lineage city folk, as he could tell from the clothes and cameras. His offline libraries helped to process their behaviour patterns and passively scanned retinal movements for any sign of recognition. No one here knew him. No one here was looking for him.
Some of them clustered around the tour guide - an obvious man marked by a high-visibility jacket and the archetypical fishing rod-esque tour flag emblazoned with “Hoang Nguyen touring, since 20AA.” McCormack’s sonar detected that the guide was denser and heavier than the rest of the group; most likely an Android or an Endoborg.
McCormack walked casually around the tour bus and eyeballed it manually. Piece of legacy diesel junk with a cheap coat of smart paint that piped an endless loop of beverage videos: nothing out of the ordinary in this part of the world. There nothing in the tailpipe either.
He wasn’t sure what he was looking for - or if he was looking in the right place.If the shadow organization wanted a face-to-face with Velligas, it was unlikely that the tour group was part of that.
Nonetheless, he had to treat each of the 22 members of the tour group as a potential hostile - or a potential treasure trove. Had to keep playing the game until it was over.
A local woman with a conical hat was carrying a basket of purple dragonfruit - common as apples in Saigon. She was busy shouting ‘buy now, cheap’ at the tourists until McCormack caught her eye as he rounded the corner of the bus.
She was an older Gallian lady, a feline-adapt. Her cat ears folded low, indicative of her discontent. And her eyes almost burnt a hole in his face as as she fixated on him. Recognition.
She spat a long gobbet of saliva at his feet, muttering "murderer" in Viet and walked off with her goods in a huff, her spotted tail swishing irritatedly.
McCormack was wondering if that was a signal for him to follow. However, his behaviour analysis algorithms registered genuine distress in the Gallian. Recognition, of a sort - but recognition of another kind.
Darcy, did she know me? McCormack was cautious.
No. Came the reply
She's offline and so are we. Are you sure?
She recognizes you as a Brittanian visiting a Gallain massacre shrine. That’s all.
McCormack felt his cheeks burn. How could he have been such an idiot?
Having live grid-fed information had dulled his intelligence training about basic geography and site history. The shrine was the only reason why tourists would visit this Godforsaken inland place. In fact the remote diner would not even exist without the influx of foreigners.
And Velligas would be reviled here. He appeared in his mid-50s- the right age to be part of the invasion generation. He was visibly Corp as can be: His facial veins sparkled silver under his skin, his posture that of the ever-vigilant enhanced capitalist stock. In this guise he was indeed Velligas, down to the brand of his blood. And the only reason Velligas would be here would be if he were hostile - or oblivious.
McCormack had had his grid connection off since St. Michael - and bathed in the sea, without the constant reminders from his interface, he’d almost forgotten the Rape of Gallia and the role the Corp had played in it.
Darcy usually fed these things into a contextual feed when he passed through operational areas. Perhaps the constant feed had dulled McCormack’s innate vigilance: he was losing his touch.
For the Gallians, thirty years was not long enough for the wounds to close.
Would it be enough for anyone?
McCormack would have to keep his guard up, now; remind himself that, at least as Velligas, he was an outsider here.
Climbing onto the bus, McCormack checked all the possible hiding spots for another dead drop. He found none. He sat at the back of the bus and pulled his cap over his face in an act of feigned sleep: His vision able to penetrate the fibres of the brown cloth.
The guide seemed to acknowledge his presence by announcing that more guests were joining en route. The hat must have been enough to identify him. The guide went on to explain that the group was headed to lunch at the Shrine site proper, where undoubtedly throngs of hawkers awaited to lighten wallets in the presence of commemorated tragedy.
McCormack found himself tuning out as thick jungle rolled past the windows of the bus. To Velligas, this would have been a novel sight, an adventure. McCormack was used to it, and more than a little disgusted by its commercialization.
It seemed to take hours for the bus to trundle along trail after trail, monotonous trees bleeding into each other along the road.
Wake up. Darcy impolitely gave his autonomic system a nudge as a spike in adrenaline jerked him awake. There was no emergency - but she was a bitch like that.
McCormack peeled himself off the back seat, heart hammering, and joined the herd of brown-capped tourists out of bus.
The guide was droning on about the heroic defense of the ancestral forests of the Gallain people. He rattled off reams of information about Dranae the elder which any fool with an internet connection could have copied off the latter's Wikipedia page. But hearing the guide say it, the tourists seemed to attribute a near-mystical importance to the words. Seemed to feel themselves a part of history, as tourists who had been noble enough to visit this place.
The troupe arrived at an air-conditioned restaurant just outside the monument, on which the Shrine was built. The complex of small but building complex was thronged with tourists taking videos of the large leonine statues with their smart devices. The Gallians - a lost people, the stuff of myth. In the tourists’ eyes.
In the Gallian’s eyes, McCormack could see, this role was a necessary part for them to play. To protect their continued existence, they must instill a sense of sacred awe in the foreigners - and this shrine was one of the places they chose to tolerate the foreign presence.
Some Gallians were taking off their clothes and hanging them on pegs before morphing into cat form to pay homage. Their bodies twisted elongated as they change, stretching crazily into terrifying, un-human forms. The living stuff of myth: monsters, and objects of pity.
McCormack remembered the Gallian woman who spat at him in the village. Imagines himself as Velligas, a Corp man through and through who fancied morbid curiosity about the Gallians to be a mark of moral fiber. A man who would never once step off the beaten path to see the real history here.
Several members of the brown-capped tour group appeared silver-eyed. These moved strangely and shuddered intermittently - the hallmark of a “spaced out” brain.
Meatpuppet tours. Using nanoblood and brainware, they had lent their bodies to holidaymakers who could not afford the time or money to come in person. Somewhere far away, these customers were remote-controlling their bodies via direct but imperfect nervous system sync. The customers were there, and not.
McCormack’s tour group wasn't the only one visiting the Shrine. Various buses were pulling up making gravelly crunching sounds as their tires took them off the war-pocked asphalt. By all rights this area should have been deep woods, but around the history, developers saw the potential for gentrification.
If anyone dared to try again to desecrate the Gallian forest, it would be real estate developers. They’d be more tactful than the Corp had been three decades earlier: bringing money to compensate for what they took. Gallia would not notice it had been invaded until it was too late.
Even now, a craft beer tavern juxtaposed itself next to the restaurant with its incongruous western architecture.
It was tempting to try the microbrewery, but McCormack was on mission.
The restaurant itself maintained the native vibe - all Eastern architecture, dim lighting, and delicious smells. That the food preparation seemed primitive only added to its appeal, as though the fish, cilantro, and mint had come from the Earth and Sea itself.
McCormack knew good food when he saw it - but Velligas did not. Accordingly, McCormack put on faces of feigned confusion and disgust as he pulled the moisture-trapping cling film from the dishes that were presented to him.
His reactions weren’t the worst ones. The tour group may have signed up for “the authentic experience,” but many are having second thoughts about leaving the safety of known comfort behind. One man loudly, obnoxiously, demanded to know where the “real food” was.
McCormack fixed a smile on his face to stop himself from twitching. Lashing out at other Westerners would
blow his cover here - so the poor Gallians chefs would have to take the abuse.
Other group members managed to calm the indignant tourist - but not before he had broken several dishes. McCormack’s face burned in genuine embarrassment as the staff rushed to clean up the remains.
Never mind that McCormack was Corp Brittanian by birth and upbringing - he hated being seen with these people.
After a sumptuous meal and what seemed an interminable string of embarrassments, bills were distributed. He merely glanced at his own at first, taking it in as part of the routine.
But then he frowned. Looks closer.
The characters at the bottom of the bill made no sense. Letters interspersed with numbers, hastily handwritten on real paper with no digital trail.
He glanced up to see if any of the staff were watching him. If any stray glance or break in composure might tell him who here knows. But nothing seemed out-of-place.
Servers bustled past him, indifferent but for the desire to avoid getting yelled at. In the kitchen behind the bar the chef’s eyes were lowered, focused on their food preparation.
McCormack slid the paper into his pocket and turned, intending to join the tour group as they rose from their seats and ambled back in the direction of the tour bus.
But then a new movement caught McCormack’s eye.
He froze instinctively at the feeling that washed over him - the feeling of ‘something’s wrong’ developed in the course of long years of fieldwork.
Suddenly, the past thirty seconds are replaying themselves before McCormack’s eyes. A scan of the restaurant, and from the corner of the restaurant, an eye fixed on his -
Someone has recognized you.
Combat-calm came over him, then, and he raised his eyes to meet the gaze of a grizzled old Gallian leering at him from one corner.
The Gallian had clearly known the rough life. His face was etched with scars, one eye rheumed over in a way that suggested he’d accrued genetic damage somewhere along the line.
Velligas’ memories recognized the other instantly. An old arms-dealing acquaintance, a minor lord of the local underworld. Whom Carlos had double-crossed.
So much for keeping things simple.
McCormack analyzed the situation. The Gallian was moving - casually, lazily, but undoubtedly in his direction. Carlos was surrounded by civilians - some of whom might have been the key to following the trail he was on.
So he rose from his seat and ambled, without particular hurry or grace, toward the establishment’s restroom.
The restroom was a sad excuse for a facility - a single toilet stall with a squatting pan, equipped with a flimsy swinging stall door for seemingly no reason, since the restroom would only accommodate one user at a time.
McCormack entered the stall, latched the flimsy door behind him, and climbed up on the toilet so that his feet wouldn’t appear under the stall door..
The Gallian’s extended claws clicked on the tiles as he followed, moments later. McCormack imagined the claws extended on his fingers, centimeters of living tissue sharper than razor blades.
The Gallian kicked the stall door open at the same moment McCormack lunged.
A Corp human without combat enhancement would have been dead in an instant. The Gallian moved too fast for the eye to clearly track - but his claws met empty air.
McCormack landed on the half-feline’s back, an arm like steel fixing around the Gallian’s windpipe while the other thumb jammed into the bundle of nerves behind his carotid artery.
That should have sent the Gallian out cold. But it didn’t.
Instead, McCormack bit his tongue to keep from screaming as the Gallian’s claws sank into his arm, and tore.
The pain was unimaginable. McCormack muted it almost instantly, but a blast was already making its way along the slow C-fibers to his brain. For several seconds his eyes welled, his throat fighting to keep silent, as he delivered a fatal chop to the back of the Gallian’s neck.
His assailant went limp, long enough for McCormack to remove his arm - and curse himself for trying a nonfatal solution first. Bleeding everywhere wasn’t going to help him be inconspicuous, and tissue damage wouldn’t help him later.
He washed his arm as thoroughly as he dared in the restroom sink, bright silver nano washing down the drain - so much functionality, now useless outside his body. He glances back at the cooling body of a criminal kingpin on the floor behind him, and tried to remember if the Gallian had been sitting alone.
No. His mind’s eye snapshot showed two others at the same table, younger but equally rough-looking.
Velligas’ memories didn’t recognize the two, but that means nothing. Whoever they were, he’d just killed one of their own.
The gun itched in its holster on his hip, but McCormack denied the temptation. Shooting one of Velligas’ weapons in a public place would be the surest way to attract unwanted attention - and scare away any clandestine rendezvous.
So he opened the bathroom door casually as anything - and was ready for the foot and fist that instantly tried to bury themselves in his gut.
He flung the first young assailant into the bathroom. The “crash” as the Gallian smashed through the stall door was loud enough to attract looks from the tourist group at the bar. Resigning himself to becoming a public spectacle, McCormack seizes the other Gallian’s fist and pins him to the wall of the narrow hallway.
Just the right angle, just the right pressure - he felt the Gallian’s shoulder snap cleanly beneath his weight.
The resulting wildcat yowl notified anyone who didn’t already know of the violence - and several other humans, as well as Gallians, started to rise from their seats.
The Gallian was hissing and struggling under McCormack, spitting obscenities in three languages.
“I don’t want to have to kill you, kid,” McCormack said to him in a low and urgent voice. “Just - ”
And then he became aware of a shadow falling over his shoulder.
He barely ducked out of the way of the second Gallian attacker, who had recovered from being thrown - and was now spitting mad.
“You killed - you killed - ”
McCormack ignored the almost innocent rage in the young gangster’s eyes as he kicked him, fast enough to catch the kid off guard and send him flying back again.
Stop. Please stop, McCormack thinks at his opponents.
Leaving behind three bodies would be consistent with the Velligas cover, but he has no idea what it would to do the trail he’s on.
McCormack backed further out of the hallway and, with casual grace, grabbed a chair from the bar to hold out in front of him.
The Gallian with the broken shoulder ran right into it, making it easy for McCormack to flip the kid up over his head without touching him. An image of a lion tamer with a stool flashed before McCormack’s eyes.
A courageous but very stupid restaurant manager, or perhaps the owner, shoved past McCormack and began offering huge smiles and loud reassurances to the other customers.
‘No problem, no problem here - who wants drinks on the house?’
The Gallian came back at McCormack - swerved around the chair this time, but slowed down enough in the process for McCormack to deliver a brick-breaking kick to the kid’s stomach and send him flying into the exterior wall.
The wall splintered where the Gallian hit it - and flew clear through the flimsy wood, finally coming to rest on the grass outside.
McCormack winced internally. So much for making nice with the natives. At this rate, he’d be in the local news reports tomorrow.
In the distance, a siren began to wail.
The Gallian on the lawn pushed himself up slowly, his one good arm shaking. His shoulder should be repairing itself by now, but the process would leave him hungry and weak.
The second Gallian came running at McCormack’s back - just in time to be flipped over his shoulder and pinned to the adjoining wall.
The sound of footsteps. Police boots. Good.
The Gallian kid’s eyes widened visibly at that, and McCormack saw the agreement in his eyes: ‘I’ll leave.’
He let the young fighter up and the kid disappeared through his friend’s newly-created “exit” in the wall. The other had already vanished from the yard.
That left McCormack/Velligas, standing in the middle of the restaurant with all eyes on him.
The police entered, pointing weapons. He saw expressions on their faces ranging from a veterans’ steely-eyed resolve to shock, fear, and rage on the rookies.
The restaurant owner emerged, shouting, from the kitchen. “Finally!” he cried at the officers in Viet. “What the hell am I paying you for?”
They don’t recognize you, Darcy assured McCormack.
But they don’t like the position you’ve put them in. They don’t want to let a Britannian tourist off the hook after pulling a stunt like this - but they don’t want to have to arrest you and deal with that, either.
Velligas holds his hands up, gingerly. Regrets that Velligas’ fancy handgun is probably clearly visible on his hip.
Not a lot of point to pleading innocence, probably. It may have technically been true, but with a trail of property damage and a dead body, there would be questions. Lots of them.
The body. Distract them from the body.
The leader of the Gallian police squad began barking orders. His half-feline underlings fanned out silently, encircling McCormack with weapons raised.
The circle, he noted, had their backs to the bathroom. They were more concerned about immobilizing him than investigating the scene.
Darcy, you taking down this guy’s vocal patterns?
Give them to me.
A subtle current of signal flowed to McCormack’s larynx, and he opened his mouth to speak - in the perfectly pitched Viet of a local Gallian law enforcement officer.
“Anh, Sorry about the disturbance here,” he barked. “I was questioning that man -” he points to the restroom behind him - “when I identified him as Loka Lindt.” Velligas’ memory supplied the name, along with a brief biography of the old crime lord. “Lindt and his boys didn’t like that much.”
McCormack met the restaurant owners’ eyes directly. Felt how Velligas would respond - felt himself slip deeply, dizzily, into the other man’s personality.
“I apologize,” he said smoothly, “for the property damage. I can promise it will be paid for in full.
“My colleagues here,” he gestures to the officers encircling him, “will ensure that your establishment is not subject to further violence from Lindt’s gang.”
“And I apologize,” he said to the other tourists, “for interrupting your lunch.”
The Brittanians were still staring at him, open-mouthed - the former meatpuppets looking dazed, their eyes no longer silver.
CONTROL has done a local network blackout, then. Good. The last thing they need is footage of McCormack-slash-Velligas circulating around the globe.
But the Gallian police commander wasn’t satisfied. The senior officer stepped forward, his snarl clearly readable.
‘Just give me a reason, Corp bastard.’
“Surely you wouldn’t mind,” the officer’s Viet dripped condescension, “supplying us with your credentials.”
McCormack took a gamble. If CONTROL had blacked out the local network, it must have been listening.
“Call your office,” he said calmly. “And show them my face.”
His confidence caused the officer to waver, but only slightly. Eyes still narrowed, he drew a communicator from his belt and raised its camera to McCormack’s face.
Watching the officer’s expression fall into surprise was gratifying. McCormack wondered what sort of identity CONTROL had cooked up for him in the police system.
The younger officers began, instinctively, to back off. Their superior followed suit as soon as he’d recovered, stepping back to a respectful distance.
No one stopped him when turned, slowly, and left the cafe behind.
McCormack actually felt remorse as he stowed himself in the cargo hold of a small fishing vessel. He slipped onboard while the owner was distracted with a gaggle of tourists.
He was selling deepwater fish - so McCormack knew he’d take him where he needed to go. The thunderheads in the far distance were a guarantee - McCormack knew from experience that the deepwater fish always bit the most right before a storm.
Sure enough, minutes after he squirreled himself away in the dark belly of the cargo hold, footsteps creaked on the wood above his head.
One pair of feet. Two.
An adult. A child.
McCormack closed his eyes and tooka moment to steel himself. To rearrange himself.
With luck, he would not have to kill the father and son.
The boat began to move.
Tell me when we’re getting close, McCormack asked Darcy, grateful, for once, for the assistance. Navigation at sea is one of the few things that’s almost impossible to do without brainware - or a suite of ungainly navigation equipment and years of expertise.
So of course, McCormack’s target would be in the middle of the ocean. These people were proving to be nothing if not careful.
Affirmative. Darcy seemed happy for the rare moment of cooperation.
The pitch and yaw of the ship was like the rocking of a hammock. It’s so relaxing that McCormack felt himself begin to doze. Pitch and roll...in the dark...the soothing white noise of waves crashing against the hull…
The first batch of fish dumped on him fixed that.
He squirmed as the cold, wet, flopping things spill from above to cover his legs.
If they were pulling in the nets, this must be as far as they’re going to get from the coast.
Yes, Darcy confirmed his hunch. You will want to take the controls now.
Give it a minute. I don’t want to get broadsided by more fish when I’m coming out.
McCormack imagined Darcy smiling with a sort of vengeful schadenfreude somewhere in his hindbrain.
Another avalanche of sea life. A third.
Then, silence. The peaceful silence that comes when a day’s work is done.
There was thunder in the distance.
Shit. Darcy, how far do I have to go?
Far. You will intersect with the storm.
This seems survivable. Worst-case scenario, we have modified you sufficiently to survive until pickup.
McCormack loved diving, but the thought of being set loose kilometers from shore was not appealing. Especially given…
How close to the Sentinels?
Very close. You’ll be right on top of one.
The SEA border was a minefield - almost literally. It was lined with Sentinels - ostensibly ecological guardians, collecting plastic waste and other garbage from the Corp world that the Incarnates didn’t want polluting their seas. The things were a triumph of biotechnology: giant cephalopodine things that stretch from the sea bed to pierce the surface, eating plastic and living things alike and using the materials to make more Sentinels.
But everyone with military background knew that the Sentinels were effective weapons as well as forest rangers. The official Incarnate policy is to warn Corp vessels not to approach the border and classify the fates of careless vessels as “accidents.”
In any other era, they’d have been called border guards.
The locals called them “teeth.”
McCormack puts on his battle face and tries to ignore the ridiculousness of wading through seafood to get to his exit. He finds himself admiring the sizes of some of the fish he glimpses in the light that come through slats in the floor. This fisherman knows what he’s doing.
More’s the pity.
McCormack kicks open the cargo hold and is upon the older Incarnate before he has time to move. Anubians, this man and his son are in the best form for fishing - sharp dog’s eyes, ears, teeth, and noses combined with agile human arms, legs, fingers, and toes.
Terrified wolf’s eyes stare at McCormack as he presses his gun to the father’s head. The little one, who is picking debris from the nets, sits frozen.
“I need to borrow your boat.”
Not good enough, comes Darcy’s voice. You need to kill them.
What do you think they’re gonna do, assassinate me? The father looks as though he has never picked up a weapon.
They could talk. They’ve got no brainware. I’m scanning the nets and finding them nowhere. I can’t edit their memories without brainware. You need to kill them.
McCormack closes his eyes, cursing under his breath. Damn that Luddite sensibility that makes Incarnates so hard to control. The same thing that protects their freedom can also cost their lives.
“Okay,” the fisherman is saying, his clawed fingers raised in a gesture of surrender. “Okay. I’ll take you where you need to go.” The boy is watching, wide-eyed.
Later, McCormack tells Darcy. I might need them yet.
As though to reinforce his point, a cold sheet of rain hits McCormack like an electric shock, almost making him jump.
He pockets the gun, still on-guard, but his instincts tell him that these two are not a threat.
“Don’t try anything, okay? I wouldn’t want to have to throw you overboard.”
The Anubian is backing away, his hands still raised. “Me either,” he says with a trembling laugh. “We can swim, but we’d prefer not to.”
McCormack turns away before his smile can become bitter.
Rain was lashing the boat in earnest now, and McCormack couldn’t make out the syllables as the father shouts instructions to his son. Maybe they said “hide” - or maybe “batton down the hatches.” The boy didn’t seem to be disappearing,
McCormack took the wheel and steered the boat into the rising storm.
He could feel the father’s anxiety behind him - and his own anxiety in tandem with it. He and the Anubian both knew that a boat like this should not be out in this weather; let alone heading for the Teeth.
When you say ‘right on top of the Sentinel,’ McCormack queried Darcy, clinging to the wheel as a particularly fierce wave almost knocked him off his feet. Salt spray hit his face.
It looks, Darcy replied, like your target is inside the Sentinel.
You can do it. Even if the boat goes down, you can penetrate.
I know. But...
McCormack glances behind him. The fisherman is staring off into the storm.
And then McCormack looks up, and he sees it.
The Sentinel is a white fang protruding from the ocean. He can see where the name comes from. It must be hundreds of meters tall - a towering titan, serene amidst the storm.
McCormack feels something tingle within his brain.
Darcy? Is that my target?
Affirmative. But be advised; the Sentinel has jamming capabilities; we no longer have network contact.
This also means that we’re within the kill zone.
McCormack’s stomach lurches.
Perhaps the storm will protect them. Perhaps the thing won’t notice a small boat so readily amidst the chaos and the wind.
McCormack realizes that he’s likely already on top of the thing, one of its dozen tripod-tentacles anchored in the seabed under the boat. Perhaps in this weather it will hesitate to lift a finger and destabilize itself. Perhaps -
Something white and massive rears out of the water, a dozen meters away.
McCormack hears the hoarse screams of the fisherman, the shrill cry of his son. He imagines the two of them scrambling together, embracing in the face of certain death - but he cannot take his eyes off of the tentacle.
Proudly, ponderously, it lifts from the ocean. Great rivulets of salt water, spotted with other things, cascade off it. It poses, regal, for a moment.
And then it swats them.
The thing moves faster than McCormack would have thought possible,and only his combat reflexes save him as the boat beneath him simply disappears.
And suddenly he is clinging to the tentacle itself as it accelerates at incredible speeds, trying to shake him off.
He grits his teeth, clinging with all his might for purchase on the slick, smooth organoplastic.
Darcy! He shouts mentally, before he remembers.
Then he remembers that he can effectively breathe underwater, too.
He tries to time his jump for a moment when the tentacle is swinging toward the behemoth. And it’s not so much a jump as a surrender, letting the tentacle’s incredible speed and force fling him loose.
The white wall of the Sentinel hits him like a ton of concrete - and the impact would be as fatal, if CONTROL hadn’t enhanced every damn cell in his body. As it is, he’s only dazed and mildly confused as he slides down the side of the thing and hits ocean.
Ocean. Silence. Calm.
Entering the underwater world centers and focuses him instantly. He remembers why he is here.
If there’s going to be an access point to get into the Sentinel, it would make sense for it to be underneath a thing.
Where a squid’s mouth would be. McCormack shudders, trying not to picture a giant, snapping beak.
But that is exactly what he finds as his eyes adjust to the near-darkness and relative calm underneath the sentinel. He is swimming along its underside when he sees the giant, shearing clamp - seeming almost to breathe as the Sentinel sways and shudders in the storm.
There’s an up side to the enormous size of it: McCormack can probably slip through with a breath of water, unnoticed and intact.
He creeps as close as he dares to the almost-living thing. He dares a glance into the bottomless black depths - as though checking for oncoming traffic - and laughs a little unhinged laugh at the nothingness beneath him.
He’ll need to move fast if he’s going to make it through the beak. Faster than he trusts himself to swim.
Struck by a thought, he reaches for the gun at his waist.
A Creedence & Weber MK-6 Longhorn has a hell of a recoil. This is especially true if you fire a thermobaric round underwater.
The round hits the Sentinel just meters from McCormack - exactly where he’d aimed it. And the violent explosion of steam throws him hard along its underside, into -
Into the jaws. He feels sharp edges on his back as he slams into them and scrambles inside the maw, to safety, while the Sentinel shudders and emits a deep subsonic rumble.
Please don’t be calling for help, he thinks, desperately, and hauls himself over the beak’s lip into -
Organic machinery churns sickeningly, centimeters from his face. A warm reek issues from the digestive parts. This is where fish and garbage would be deposited to be broken down and made into new Sentinels, or into repair parts for this one.
But through accident or design, he hasn’t been shoved directly into them.
McCormack scrambles up a slippery incline and tries not to imagine what he must look like. Dripping and undignified, desperate in his scramble to survive.
Finally, his hand makes contact with something. The rung of a ladder.
Climbing a ladder is cake compared to the ringer of the last hour. As he climbs, his eyes begin to discern a faint glow above him.
The platform, when he finally arrives at it, looks to be a small maintenance office of Gallian design. A small hologram is rotating in the center of it, and McCormack feels his mouth fall open.
The hologram shows a planet - and something in orbit around it, making bright tracks through the darkness.
Beneath the planet, bright text rotates in time with its orbit.
“We are grateful,” it reads, “that you have received our invitation.”